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DESTINATION – Croatian Cool

The backdrop to Game of Thrones, the painstakingly preserved city of Dubrovnik is a major tourist draw once more, says Helen Dalley.

A favoured stop-off of cruise ships, Game of Thrones fans and medieval history lovers, Dubrovnik is finally back doing what it does best, after months of quiet: welcoming tourists to its gorgeous old town – it includes the Renaissance building the Sponza Palace and a bell tower built in 1444 – before meandering along its city walls to take in sweeping views over the city’s terracotta roofs and the turquoise waves of the Adriatic. 

Among Dubrovnik’s many fans is Natalie Dormer, who plays shrewd, ambitious Margaery Tyrell in Game of Thrones, which used the city as backdrop to seven of its eight series. “The most amazing set where I’ve shot Game of Thrones is definitely Dubrovnik in Croatia. It’s such a stunning country with lots of good water sports there as well. Just a beautiful, beautiful place,” she says. In addition to the HBO hit, Robin Hood and Star Wars: The Last Jedi were filmed in Dubrovnik. 

A Dramatic Location

Built into a cliff in a secluded bay and carved out of rock, I’m staying at Rixos Premium Dubrovnik. Formerly the Libertas Hotel, it underwent a €20 million renovation in 2020 and is one of the city’s most esteemed hotels, with a private sliver of beach where seaside cabanas are nestled into the rocks. If it wasn’t quite so windy, I’d be descending the ladders down to the sea and going for a swim. Instead, I check into a deluxe room with a spacious open terrace with mesmerising views over the Adriatic: on the first night I’m here, there’s a rainbow framing the rugged coastline. 

While the weather is usually pleasant in October, the first day I arrive, it’s raining so I wander through the hotel. The lobby and ground floor is like a gallery, with the works of local and international artists adding delicious pops of colour and character. In the lobby area, the walls are lined with bookshelves filled with glossy travel and lifestyle tomes, and there are squishy sofas to read them in. 

Determined not to be outdone by the rain, I put my umbrella up and make the 15-minute walk to the old town, where the limestone paved streets are slick with rainwater and tourists parade under cover of plastic rain ponchos. The rain cannot diminish the beauty of the centre of the old town, and the thrill of finally walking along its main street, stradun, which is flanked by 17th century buildings. Inside the old town’s shops, Game of Thrones merch is ubiquitous, while more authentic purchases include hand-stitched lace, linen, lavender and honey. I swing by Scala for a pizza (being close to Italy, Croatia is big on Italian fare) and dig into a thin crust margarita and a local lager beer, Ožujsko. One of the most enchanting aspects of Dubrovnik is its charming labyrinth of side streets, where cafes, restaurants and bars await. Some involve ascending steep stone stairs, but it’s definitely worth it. And as the old town is so compact, there’s always someplace you can dive into for a coffee or something stronger. 

Back at the hotel, I head to the Anjana spa for a colour massage and am first asked to select a candle. A medium-pressure rub-down follows and 60 minutes of bliss under flickering candlelight, the scent of lavender lingering in the air, is over all too soon. Reluctantly, I stir and sit awhile in the spa’s centrepiece, a Turkish hammam, before stepping into an adjacent ice room to cool off. As dusk falls, I head outside and watch the waves crash onto the hotel wall and get spattered with seawater on more than one occasion. Like me, a guest nearby dares himself to walk closer and closer to the sea and dodge the waves as they break onto the wall. After the blissful quiet of the spa, it’s fun and exhilarating. Undercover of cool contemporary light fixtures, dinner at Turquoise is an entertaining affair: the set menu features several courses and hearty portions, so make sure you’re hungry. The staff are courteous and chatty and teach me the Croatian for hello (zdravo) and thank you (hvala). 

The Walk Of Shame

The next day dawns bright and sunny, and after a breakfast of Croatian cheeses from Dalmatia (perfect when planted atop a freshly baked croissant) I’m booked in with one of the city’s most celebrated tour guides. Dubrovnik native Ivan Vukovic has led tours with Brit comedians Richard Ayoade and Stephen Merchant, collaborated with countless European and US TV shows and also worked as a destination scout. Brimming with an infectious and genuine enthusiasm for all things Dubrovnik, he courts me with facts about the city, hardly pausing for breath as we stroll around, as he bids hello to neighbours and old school friends. Dubrovnik, he says, was the first place to introduce quarantine in the middle ages, and the ancient quarantine centre, or lazarettos, are still standing, their interconnected building now used for trade and

entertainment. “If you broke self-isolation, then they’d cut off the tip of your nose or ear,” he says with bemusement. 

The first stop is Pile Wall, which he describes as, “a tiny entrance to a fortified city,” then we’re out on the stradun, an ancient 300m-long thoroughfare lined with shops, restaurants and cafes. Dubrovnik’s tourist demographic is changing, says Vukovic. “It’s still a popular stop-off with cruise ships, but 20-odd years ago, people would get off and hardly walk anywhere. Now it’s more young people, and the stop-offs are longer”. There was a 25 percent uptick in tourism following Game of Thrones, he adds.

“There are pluses and minuses to that – it creates more employment, Dubrovnik gets that hype, but the historical impact of the city is lost,” he laments. 

“Younger travellers go on Instagram and Facebook and post trips of seven countries in seven days. You don’t get the vibe of any place doing that – it all gets mixed up but that’s the trend now,” Vukovic adds.

It’s still morning but Ivan takes me to one of the city’s most celebrated wine shops, In Vino Veritas, where the owner proudly proclaims that Zinfandel hails from Croatia, not the US. He pours me a sample of Peljescac, considered to be one of the country’s finest wines, before explaining that fellow Croatian and Napa Valley legend Mike Grgich (now 98) is a good friend; some of his wines are stocked in the store alongside many Croatian vintages. 

Cersei Lannister’s walk of atonement, or “walk of shame” in Game of Thrones, for laying with a man outside the bonds of marriage, has become one of the most talked-about scenes in the show. Shorn of hair and clothes to “bear all before god” (and the large crowd that’s gathered) as angry townspeople pelt food and names at her, the scene was filmed on the Jesuit steps in Dubrovnik, which is the next stop on the tour. Vukovic admits the scene has inspired others to do the same. “You see young Australians getting naked. They’ve had to put up posters saying, ‘don’t take your clothes off’,” he smiles and shakes his head. From here, we wander down to Gundulic Square to take a nosy around green market, where tourist stalls selling bagged-up figs, candied orange and almonds are lined up against tables laid out with fruit and vegetables, honey and local liquors, including rakija and sljiva. Just don’t leave it too late to rock up for mementoes, as it closes around 12pm.

My tour with Ivan bows out with a latte at Glam, situated down one of those beguiling Dubrovnik side alleys, where old lanterns up ahead add a dash of retro cool. As we sip our coffees, I ask my guide what he likes to do when he’s not educating tourists about his city. “I like to go to the beach and hire a stand-up paddle board; it’s a great way to see the city and observe how impressive it is.” Hiking in the Winter season is another popular pastime for this Dubrovnik local, especially if it involves a stop-off in a panorama bar. “A visit to the Red History museum is another must, as it explores Croatia’s modern history and life under the communist regime of Yugoslavia. There’s a great rooftop bar near there, Love, where bands and DJ’s rock a young crowd from Dubrovnik”.

After bidding doviđenja to Ivan, I have a dinner date at Michelin plate restaurant Kopun back at the top of the Jesuit Steps, a restaurant that’s celebrated for its black cuttlefish with squid ink and kapen, or castrated rooster. I order a sweet, velvety lentil stew with crème fraiche and watch the tour groups zoom past – there’s a guide brandishing a sword – and take selfies. I wander down to the harbour, where tour boats take small groups over to the islands – Lokrum, Korčula and Mljet are all popular choices – and see tourists sheltering from the sun on the city’s medieval stairs, deliberately lingering with their ice creams.  

To get a real sense of the size and scope of Dubrovnik, you need to pay 200 koruna (no foreign currency accepted though you can pay by card) and walk the city walls – they run almost 2km around the city – to get a more elevated, open perspective on the city and level with its ancient rooftops. As the weather is good, I pause plenty for photos, my gaze lingering on the defence forts of Minceta Tower, and St. John’s Fort as I dodge the couples, families and cafés all clamouring for sea views. 

Photo opportunity

It’s my last day in Dubrovnik, and I’m keen to find some more modern-day culture. Situated on a side street off the main drag of the Old Town is War Photo, a collection of war and conflict photojournalism spread over two floors. It’s a harrowing yet poignant assessment of the Eastern European wars – one image haunts me of a young boy crying out at his father’s funeral, a crumpled-up tissue in his hands as his relatives wail behind him – as well as modern-day conflicts and traumatic examples of displacement, such as Myanmar’s Rohingya people and the vast refugee camps in Bangladesh many now call home.

After the war photography exhibition, I’m in need of some light relief (and a stiff drink). On the advice of my aunt, a big Dubrovnik fan, I step through a small opening on Dubrovnik’s southern wall to a bar called Buža (it means small hole and refers to the bar’s entrance) facing the sea and delivering sensational views out to the island of Lokrum and the southern Dalmatia hills. I drink a Karlovacko as couples teeter on the sandstone rocks, hanging onto the railings, and take smiling selfies in the midday sun before doing the same. Back in the historic hub of the city, I stop for a coffee at Tata’s in the square and soak up the vibes of the buzzing stradun once more before heading back to the airport, revived by the sight of tourism and the sheer joy of travel. Suddenly, something Ivan said springs to mind. “I’ve travelled to more than 120 countries, but I’m still wowed by Dubrovnik.” When I return with my family in tow, I expect my sentiments will be the same. 

Jetsetter stayed at the Rixos Premium Dubrovnik (rixos.com) and toured the city with Ivan Vukovic (dubrovnik-tourist-guides.com)

If you’re looking for somewhere safe to invest your cash and want to appreciate your investment, then head over to the auction houses and hit the galleries and find an artist whose style really resonates with you…

Art is not the stock market.
Art is art and it’s so
unique, and always nice to
display. Collectors generate
conversation through
their art.

Marcello Kwan,
Head of modern and contemporary art, Asia, Bonham’s

Abstract art takes off

Bonham’s head of modern and contemporary art, Asia, Marcello Kwan, who joined the company in June and was at Christie’s for 10 years before, says the Hong Kong market has evolved a lot in past three to five years. “Ten years ago, Hong Kong collectors had quite local tastes, and would tend to go for Asian and Chinese art. Now it’s 40-50 per cent non-Asian artists, with Banksy and other street artists really popular with Asian buyers.” Abstract artists like Taiwan’s Richard Lin and Stanley Whitney from the US are also very popular among Asian collectors. “Abstract art is easier to live with, instead of something full of political message, which is too heavy, or even portraits.” Chinese artists are on the up, he says. “Liu Ye is extremely popular… one of the key elements in his art is [his incorporation of] Mondrian paintings in his works. His work is very universal and harmonious.” Just like the Chinese contemporary art boom in the 2000s, Kwan says Liu Ye’s works are now reaching a peak, as is Hong Kong artist, Lee Kit. “He represented Hong Kong at the Venice Biennale, and he’s really conceptual,” he notes.

It’s a new era for buying art, says Kwan. “Two years ago, online platforms were not that popular. Some even wondered if buying art online was even possible. The pandemic has pushed things to another direction, and buyers are more comfortable buying online.” Last year, Bonham’s introduced a new app and website, and encouraged clients to register and consign online. “It’s very easy – you can do it anywhere. We don’t necessarily need to see each other.” Nevertheless, he says some clients treasure the moment to look at the art together. “You can’t replace the human touch and seeing people’s reaction. Digital isn’t replacing everything but it’s helping, as a lot of people still can’t travel. One recent online sale of contemporary art showed 35 percent of new buyers were bidding online, which is a very encouraging number. We’re not talking about big lots, but it does show that people feel relaxed about bidding online.” While some reports indicate that more than 80 per cent prefer to buy offline, the buying impulse is so huge that collectors can’t wait. “If you wait, you lose the chance,” he says.

Kwan notes that young collectors are more open minded, and keen to invest in digital art, which has been a hot topic recently, particularly Non-Fungible Tokens (NFT). “Our London team sold an NFT artwork of a Cristiano Ronaldo trading card, ground-breaking in terms of concept and medium, for US$400,000 to a collector in the US,” he says, adding that some are building collections of digital art and installations.

“A digital art fair was recently held at NFT gallery, Start Art, which is the world’s first physical blockchain art gallery,” adds Kwan.

In the next 12-18 months, collectors will be looking for new artists to invest in, Kwan predicts. “A lot of collectors aren’t just doing it for personal enjoyment, but want to see some good financial return, and see that their pieces have the potential to grow in value. There’s more and more money going into the art market, as the super-rich are looking for something to collect for investment purposes and art has proved to be a good asset for the portfolio,” he elaborates.

Before starting an art collection, ask yourself why you want to collect, Kwan advises.

“Is it for personal enjoyment or investment or other reason. It’s important to understand what you are buying and doing research is very easy nowadays on sites like Artnet, which are quite transparent about prices.” If clients want to build a collection, Kwan suggests making it consistent with their tastes, not just jumping around randomly. “That’s the beauty of buying art, it represents your personality, your knowledge, your taste. Young collectors might, for example, go for hip street art… you’re creating your own style, showing that you want people to see you as young and energetic and positioning yourself away from the traditional.” He always hopes clients can display their art works. “Art is not the stock market. Art is art and it’s so unique, and always nice to display. Collectors generate conversation through their art.”

Is the White Cube Obsolete?

The de Sarthe gallery offers a platform to a new generation of Asian artists whose practices are influenced by digital culture and the omnipresence of technology in the 21st century. “These artists explore the evolutional changes in society that normalise anxiety and restlessness in the prevailing post-Internet era. Their works reflect on the psychological side-effects of humanity’s overindulgence in technology,” says founder and owner, Pascal de Sarthe.

De Sarthe believes we are experiencing a transitional art world. “New technology is constantly changing and will continue to change the way art is being created and consumed. We could make a parallel with how photography changed art at the end of the 19th century. The gallery’s white cube space will soon be obsolete. With our represented artists being part of that change, we are rethinking our business model.”

The gallery says stringent quarantine measures have helped increase local visitors to its gallery, as evidenced by the strong footfall for its Mak2 (Mak Ying Tung 2) House of Fortune exhibition last December. One of the exhibition highlights was Feeding the Multitude, a mass of 3D-printed crystals created from a single digital file that was blessed in a Kaiguang consecration ritual by a Fengshui master. “Local collectors suddenly realised that right in their backyard were interesting galleries and artists, compensating for the lack of foreign visitors and collectors. Our Mak2 opening generated great local and online sales. Just one week after the opening, we sold 17 works from the exhibition,” he notes.

Multimedia artist Mak2 has been labelled Hong Kong’s rising star, says de Sarthe. Such artists have attracted a younger generation of Asian collectors who share similar cultural upbringings and are now attracting the interest of Western collectors. “Important local and Western collections have acquired the works in her current exhibition and the largest painting from the show is going to the UBS art collection. We are also now in discussion with two big American and European contemporary art galleries,” he confirms.

As for the current state of the contemporary art market in Asia, he says there’s many liquidities and a strong appetite for art in the Asian region. “Asia is still an emerging market with lots of newcomers whose focus is on decorative, easy-to-understand paintings. Their lack of experience prompts them to collect art with their ears, and this influx of new cash is creating a bubble for trendy styles and forms of art.”

Pascal’s son, Vincent, plays an important part in choosing the artists they work with. “He managed our Beijing gallery from 2014 to 2018 and brought some of the Chinese artists we currently represent. We like artists that react and express themselves based on current life. In this transitional period, the swell of social, environmental and political changes was inspirational for artists. China is at a turning point and leading changes for the 21st century. That will have an impact on the art. American artists were the last to break radically with the past, and I believe that the next long due break in tradition will come from China.”

People buy art for lots of different reasons, but the commercial and speculative aspect of it has taken the art world by storm, says de Sarthe. “Buying art is more like purchasing baseball trading cards. That’s not new, but the art market’s expansion today makes it more obvious. But the art that’s in fashion today will no longer be tomorrow.”

Reading about art history will make you better understand your interests in contemporary art, says de Sarthe. “Get to know the artist, the gallerist and be part of the contemporary art conversation. Make your own judgment, don’t follow the trend! Learn to live with the art!” De Sarthe says you should also be able to pick up some bargains by emerging artists. “Contemporary art by young artists should not be expensive.”

Hot Western artists

Established in 2004 as the Chinese contemporary art market was booming, Opera Gallery Hong Kong was one of the first international galleries to have a presence in the city and recently relocated to the Galleria on Queens Road in Central. “Our collectors are from all walks of life. But all share one same passion: the art,” says the gallery’s director, Olivier Demblum.

“We know that the art world, and what collectors are looking at, is always in flux, which is why we are constantly bringing in new and ground-breaking works to clients,” he says. A good example is Austrian avant-garde artist Hermann Nitsch, whose works are often based on the ritualistic practice of sacrifice and involve blood, animal entrails, and nudity. “Art enthusiasts and collectors alike have been swept off their feet by his works, and with the new perceptions that they have with engaging with new works, they become more open to ideas about what kind of art they like.”

The gallery carries works from masters from the 20th century alongside promising and established contemporary artists. “20th century artists like [French expressionist painter] Bernard Buffet and [French abstract painter] Georges Mathieu are popular with local collectors.” So far as contemporary artists are concerned, it has seen a lot of interest for Swiss painter Andy Denzler, Spanish artist Manolo Valdés and French painter Andre Brasilier. “We attribute the success of these artists to their ability to encapsulate emotions and ideas in their artworks,” says Demblum. Contemporary sculptures, such as ones from Manolo Valdés and British /American Anthony James, have also been selling very well, partly due to the kind of connections that people make with them,” he adds.

The director says it understands now, more than ever, that having a strong digital presence is essential for growth. “The pandemic has taught us that it’s important to be present and functional in the virtual space and connect with a wider range of audiences. We’ve created more virtual online viewing rooms, as we see that many are looking for a new kind of art experience.” Collectors still like to the feeling of walking around our physical galleries, however. “Most of them like to pay us a visit first before buying online. This is very similar to auctions, where collectors will visit the exhibition first or mandate someone to do so before making an important purchase decision.”

As for the advice he’d like to share for those keen to start an art collection, Demblum reveals three key points that were recounted to him by Swiss art dealer Ernst Beyeler in Basel when he was still a young collector. “The first one is to buy for the right reason – purchase what you like. The second one is to be curious and open minded. Educate your eye as much as possible: visit galleries, fairs, exhibitions of all kinds, periods and styles. This will help your tastes to mature and know yourself better, and your collection will always reflect your personality. The third one is to find a good advisor who understands you and your art journey, as each art journey is different.”



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Mainland China, Hong Kong & Macao



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Asia, North America, Africa and Europe

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